Countess by Christmas by Cheryl Bolen
Inheriting Darnley Lodge from old Lord Paxton is the best thing that’s happened to lovely widow Mary Milne, whose fondest desire is to remove her ailing little boy from London’s noxious air.
Why in the devil did his dead father request that Lord Paxton spend Christmas at Darnley with the scheming woman who’s deprived him of his family’s old hunting lodge?
Mary Milne could not imagine why she had been summoned to a solicitor’s office. Her late husband most certainly possessed nothing worthy of legal transfer. Indeed, his paltry military pension barely kept food in the bellies of her and their son.
She hated taking Stevie out on so miserable a day. It was not only beastly cold, but she hated exposing her son’s delicate lungs to London’s noxious air. Today one could barely see one’s hand in front of one’s face for the sooty skies. How she missed the clean country air of East Sussex and Darnley Lodge.
What a difference one Christmas made! Last Christmas she and Stevie had enjoyed being with kindly old Lord Paxton at his beloved Darnley Lodge. Now he was buried in the churchyard near Darnley, and she and Stevie had been forced to return to London and their squalid lodgings.
“Come, my little love. Wrap your coat tightly around you. We’ve got to go into the City,” she told her son. She dreaded it. She could not afford to take a hackney coach. They would have to walk. She calculated it would take them nearly an hour to reach the establishment of Mr. Percy Stonehouse, Esquire. She prayed Stevie wouldn’t get sick. Again.
She even contemplated leaving him alone, but he was only eight. Too young to be on his own. What if the building burned down? And he was still young enough to be frightened when left by himself. Even at the risk of damaging his lungs, she couldn’t go off for that long without him.
She squashed a hat on her own blonde locks, donned her worn, hand-knitted shawl, and they left. It had been so long since she’d seen the sun shine, she wondered if it had forsaken the Capital altogether. What a wretchedly miserable day it was with piercing winds and a cold that penetrated every pore of her body.
At least Stevie had a warm coat. She had only a well-worn pale blue merino pelisse that had been part of her trousseau ten years earlier, and this topped by her shawl for additional warmth.
She looked longingly at those they passed who wore heavy woolen coats. Those trimmed with costly furs drew her admiration though she knew she would never own such attire.
The severe cold did not discourage travelers on the busy Strand. There was a dray delivering ale, several coal carts and many stagecoaches guided by teams of four horses—which always fascinated Stevie—various carts with building supplies ranging from boards to stones, a number of curricles and private coaches, and far too many saddle horses to count.
After almost an hour, her feet beginning to blister, they had made it to a narrow street a few blocks east of St. Paul’s. A sign swinging in front of a slender building proclaimed this to be the place of business of Mr. Stonehouse. She announced herself to a youthful, bespectacled clerk.
“Mr. Stonehouse is expecting you, Missus.” He got up and escorted them to an adjoining office.
A white-haired man with stooped shoulders rose when they entered. After introducing himself, he asked them to be seated in front of his desk. “I’ve asked you here today, Mrs. Milne, to explain the terms of Lord Paxton’s will.”
It was a few seconds before she realized he must be discussing her sweet Lord Paxton. When he’d sent her away, she’d never thought to hear from him again.
And she hadn’t. Lord Paxton’s kindly housekeeper, Mrs. Ballard, had written to tell her of Lord Paxton’s passing the previous month. Mary had wept for days. It was like losing her own father.
Then it suddenly occurred to her, dear Lord Paxton must have left her a little something. How very kind. She fleetingly wondered what thoughtful gesture he had made. Stevie had adored the pony in his stable. Perhaps he’d left the pony to them. Not that they could afford to keep it. But, still, it would have been a thoughtful bequest.
Oh, dear. How could she disappoint Stevie? Nothing would give him more pleasure than having a pony of his own, but if that was what Lord Paxton left them, she would have no choice but to sell the animal. She could barely afford to keep a roof over their head. There was no way she could come up with money for livery fees.
Poor Stevie’s heart would wrench even more than leaving Darnley Lodge had hurt him.
Her eyes misted as she looked into Mr. Stonehouse’s craggy face.
“As you must know,” he said, “Lord Paxton has left the bulk of his considerable estate to his son and heir, David.”
“But,” he added, “he has settled a hundred a year on you for life.”
Her mouth gaped open, and tears gushed. A hundred a year was the difference between comfort and poverty. She had never expected such generosity. “I am profoundly grateful,” she managed.
Her eyes widened. Her heartbeat thumped.
“Lord Paxton has stipulated in his will that he wants you to have Darnley Lodge.”
It was almost as if a lightning bolt had struck her, she was so shocked. “But Darnley was the place where he and his son had so many precious memories. I . . . can’t. . .” How could she be refusing this? She’d never loved a place like she’d loved Darnley. And Stevie had never been happier—or healthier—than he’d been at Darnley.
“It’s not your decision, Mrs. Milne, to accept or reject. This is Lord Paxton’s last will and testament. It’s what he wanted most. Can you question his judgment?”
She shook her head. “Lord Paxton was the wisest man I ever knew.”
“I concur. Therefore, madam, you must acknowledge Lord Paxton’s wisdom and accept Darnley.”
She didn’t dare allow herself to look at Stevie. He might just be a child, but he was intelligent enough to understand what he’d just heard. The prospect of returning to Darnley would have him wild with glee.
“I’ve never admired anyone more than I admired Lord Paxton. If he wanted us to live at Darnley Lodge, then we shall live at Darnley Lodge.”
Now she allowed herself to cast a glance at Stevie.
Her heart felt as if it could expand right out of her chest. She hadn’t seen him smiling like that since . . . since he’d been at Darnley nearly a year ago.
“Oh, Mama! We can be at Darnley for Christmas!” Then his little freckled face saddened. “I shall miss Lord Paxton.”
“So shall I, love, so shall I.”
Mr. Stonehouse cleared his throat. “Before you leave today, I am authorized to give you a sum of money. Your quarterly installment. It should help with your transportation expenses.”
The first thing Mary thought of was hiring a hackney to take them back to their lodgings. What a wonderful luxury it would be.
She took a quick glance at the bottom of her shoe. A hole had worn through. No wonder she’d blistered. Thanks to Lord Paxton she would be able to purchase a new pair of shoes, too.
Then she and Stevie would leave as soon as possible for their new home.
* * *
John Beauclerc, the Earl of Finchley, strolled into White’s, accompanied by his friends Christopher Perry and Michael Knowles. Their fourth friend, David Arlington, recently elevated to Earl of Paxton, had gotten a considerable start on them. His brandy decanter was already half empty. Lord Finchley came to stand beside David, wagging his brows as he regarded the bottle. “Drinking alone?”
“Got every right to drown in my own cups.”
“And why would that be?” The man they all referred to as Finch sat beside David while the others also sat at the table with their long-time friend. The four of them had been exceptionally close since their days at Eton.
“Because I’ve been grossly bestrayed by my own father.”
“You mean betrayed.”
David nodded. “Indeed.”
“But your father’s been dead over a month now. . . Good lord, did he leave his fortune to someone else?”
Christopher leaned toward David. “Then how were you betrayed?”
“Of all the properties the Paxtons possess, I shall not inherit the very one that means the most to me.”
“Paxton House in London?” Knowles asked.
“No,” David replied.
Lord Finchley looked askance at him. “He couldn’t give away Tonton Abbey. It’s entailed.”
David’s eyebrows folded. “How long have you known me?”
“More than twenty years,” Finch answered.
“Since we were eight years of age,” Knowles said.
“And do you not know where I have always been the happiest?”
“Oh, yes!” Lord Finchley brightened. “Darnley Lodge.”
David nodded morosely. “Ever since I was a wee lad, that was where I wanted most to be. That’s where I learned to ride. Papa and I would always go there without the women and girls. Just the fellows.”
“The shooting there was the best,” Christopher Perry acknowledged.
“It still is,” David said. “But I won’t get to enjoy it.”
“Who the devil did you your father bestow it upon?” Lord Finchley asked.
David poured another glass of brandy and took a long swig. “Some She-Devil who bewitched the old fool.”
“He left the lodge to a woman?” Perry asked, his dark eyes narrowed to slits.
David nodded, the set to his head as grim as one in mourning.
“A doxy, no doubt,” Lord Finchley said.
“It does seem so, though Papa was never in the petticoat line.”
“Your father was the most honorable man I’ve ever known,” Knowles said.
“So sorry this has rather ruined your Christmas. You must come with Perry and me to Glenmont for Christmas. I know you usually go to Darnley.”
David sighed. “There’s a massive problem about Christmas.”
“What would that be?” Perry asked.
“I’ve gotten a posthumous letter from my father begging me to spend this last Christmas at Darnley.” He snatched up his glass and downed the rest of the dark liquid.
“Will the doxy be there?” Lord Finchley asked.
David shrugged. “I don’t actually know. I don’t even know why Papa insisted that I spend the Yule at Darnley, but how I can refuse this last request? As angry as I am, he was my father. And throughout my life, he was a very good father.”
“Oh, definitely. A very good father,” Lord Finchley agreed.
The two others nodded in agreement.
“I don’t understand how he could betray me like this. He knew how much Darnley meant to me.”
“He couldn’t very well give away Tonton Abbey. It’s been in your family for centuries,” Lord Finchley said.
“Not to mention it’s entailed,” Knowles added.
“Why did that conniving, depraved, fortune-seeking, low-class wench have to get any of our property?” David grabbed the decanter and poured out another glass of brandy.
“Perhaps,” Knowles suggested, “you can have the will broken.”
“I have certainly discussed that with our solicitor. While he believes Papa was of very sound mind, and all is in order with the will, with everything witnessed properly by our long-standing Darnley servants, he will comply with my wishes to try to contest it.”
“How?” Knowles asked.
“The solicitor is engaging a barrister to examine the situation at my behest.” David took a long swig. “I also feel betrayed by our Darnley servants. I would have trusted them with my very life.”
Knowles shrugged. “All they did was obey your father’s request to witness the will. Perhaps you’re being too harsh on them.”
“Rotten luck, old fellow,” Lord Finchley said.
The two others nodded in unison.
“What if you’re forced to spend Christmas with that . . . that harlot?” Knowles asked.
David’s mouth thinned almost to a grimace. “I almost relish the prospect. I assure you I’ll take away everything that’s not nailed to the house. And you can be assured every animal in that stable will be moved to the stables at Tonton. She’ll get none of my possessions!”
“Such a dreary Christmas, old fellow.” Lord Finchley patted him sympathetically.
Since her first book was published to acclaim in 1998, Cheryl Bolen has written more than three dozen Regency-set historical romances. Several of her books have won Best Historical awards, and she's a New York Times and USA Today bestseller as well as an Amazon All Star whose books have been translated into nine languages. She’s also been penning articles about Regency England and giving workshops on the era for more than twenty years.
In previous lives, she was a journalist and an English teacher. She’s married to a recently retired college professor, and they’re the parents of two grown sons, both of whom she says are brilliant and handsome! All four (and their new daughter-in-law) love to travel to England, and Cheryl loves college football and basketball and adores reading letters and diaries penned by long-dead Englishwomen.
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